Anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Although we have come far, much remains to be done to ensure that government works fairly. 

As a black woman, I often reflect on the disparate opportunities presented in our society and my gratitude for having access to the political process.  Although we have come far, much remains to be done to ensure that government works fairly.  Given our polarized political dynamic, we must continue working to ensure that opportunity is available to a broader range of people.

The debate over voting rights is central to these issues.  Today in a partisan vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed  H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act authored by Representative Terri Sewell (AL-07).  H.R. 4 would revise the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to establish a modern framework of criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions are subject to federal oversight concerning voting rights. The bill remediates a 2013 Supreme Court decision  Shelby County v. Holder, which nullified sections of the Voting Rights Act requiring “preclearance” by states; the process of seeking U.S. Department of Justice approval for all changes related to voting.

Today’s vote coincides with the Thirteenth Amendment ratification anniversary ending slavery, December 6, 1865.

Although today’s House fell along party lines, the right to vote is a foundational element of the march toward equality that began with ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and continues today.  For 250 years, the “original sin” of slavery was supported by a state and local legal framework that served as the economic driver of the nation. In 1860, 80 percent of the gross national product was tied to slavery. Life and livelihood in not only the South but also Northern states depended on labor provided by enslaved black Americans.

Similarly, during this time, states determined who was eligible to vote. As originally written, the U.S. Constitution did not establish voting rights from 1787–1870, with the exception of a requirement that states permit voting to elect members of the House of Representatives if the state also permitted a vote for the “most numerous branch” of its state legislature (U.S. Const. Art. I, s. 2, cl. 1).  Unlike today, the Constitution did not contemplate voting by women like me, or people of color.

The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment was the first time in U.S. history that federal power shifted a substantial aspect of control from the states to the federal government. This shift was followed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that recognized the full citizenship of formerly enslaved persons and protected the right to vote.

Multiple scholars, such as Columbia University professor Eric Foner, Ph.D. and Emory University’s Carol Anderson, Ph.D., have discussed the fundamental shift of the Thirteenth Amendment as the most critical in our nation’s history.  The tension between federal oversight of the states in matters affecting race, class, and economics remains an underlying tension that is likely to spring forward in today’s vote on voting rights.

In 1965 following years of discrimination, the Voting Rights Act was enacted to protect the American people’s right to vote and require federal review of changes in voting access (preclearance) where a history of discrimination existed.  Congress amended and expanded voting rights in bipartisan votes held in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006, under five Republican Administrations.

States fought back with multiple challenges to the Voting Rights Act.  Shelby v. Holder effectively ended federal supervision (i.e. preclearance) in states with longstanding histories of suppressing voting rights.  Less than two months after the decision, states enacted provisions that effectively reduced voting access.

Writing for the Majority, in Shelby, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.” He then placed responsibility on Congress, calling upon the states to identify jurisdictions where a pattern of voter suppression exists.

Congress responded by reinvigorating the Elections Subcommittee of the Committee on House Administration.  Representative Marcia Fudge (OH-11) was appointed to examine voting in states.  Hearings took place over a period of months and the Subcommittee on Elections issued a report in November 2019, documenting its findings, some of which were incorporated into H.R. 4.

Today’s vote fell along party lines. This should not be because voting is not a partisan issue.  But depending on whether policymakers are Democrats or Republicans, conflicting views in a polarized environment focus Republican arguments on voter fraud (typically identity and aberrant registration), and Democrats on the much more significant issue of voter suppression (efforts to reduce participation).

Both voter suppression and voter discrimination continue to be widespread.  The 2019 progressive Brennan Center for Justice report found that between 2016 and 2018, “At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, similar to the number we saw between 2014 and 2016, but considerably higher than we saw between 2006 and 2008”.

In contrast, the website Voter Fraud Facts cites that out of 197 million votes cast for federal candidates between 2002 and 2005, 40 voters resulted in guilty pleas for identity fraud with 26 or .00000013 percent resulting in indictments or convictions.  There is no comparison.

These issues disproportionately affect people of color, lower income and rural communities, and youth voters – the growing electorate.  The electorate which – similar to the exclusions by race, class, and gender of the nineteenth century, are most in need of federal protection to reinforce their rights and access to opportunity.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery, our collective past continues to haunt our political life.  Much remains to be done to perfect the vision of our democracy present in the preamble of our nation’s Constitution.  As the demographics of our country change, the economy shifts, and our politics polarize, it is not enough to celebrate the past.  We must learn to embrace and not hinder, the future.  Today’s vote has continued that march toward “A More Perfect Union”.